27 December 2018

My latest book: Beyond the Wall, available on all Amazon sites.


My latest book:

Beyond the Wall:

Adventures of a Volkswagen Beetle

Beyond the Iron Curtain



has just been published and is available on all Amazon sites.



Description:

1980: the Cold War between capitalist West and socialist East is in full swing. Tensions are high but, at the academic level, some channels of useful exchange remain open. The author and two classmates would join one such program linking a leading American university and its counterpart in Poland. They drive to Warsaw in a bright yellow VW Beetle and, in addition to attending classes, travel far and wide within the country as well as to several of the neighbors in the socialist bloc where the Soviet Union called all the shots. They drive across the USSR and visit the Berlin Wall, the symbol of the division of Europe. Throughout, Marco takes detailed notes of what they see and hear.

Almost four decades later, the East-West division of Europe is gone. Marco recently found his diary and decided to publish an expanded version of it. His written notes from 1980 have been enriched with descriptions and analyses of historical events that will help the reader see his personal experience in a more significant cultural, social, political and economic context.

The author hopes this real life story will help younger generations, who did not live through the Cold War, better appreciate the blessing of living in a European continent that is immensely more open, rich and free than it was then.

01 October 2018

National day in Guiyang

Today it's China national day, the anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic in 1949. It is the beginning of one week of celebrations in the whole country.

We take a walk in the Culture Park. Lots of families, and quite a few children, many waving Chinese flags.

We have dinner with family and friends. The main curiosity of the day is pig intestine, at least for me, they are used to it of course. Also duck and melt-in-your-mouth breaded pork cutlets. To finish off the meat dishes, some frogs! Everything delicious!

The men are drinking considerable amounts of distilled alcohol, 4 of them share a bottle. O. empties the bottle into their 4 glasses and then they make various toasts and challenges to each other until it's all gone! (It does not take very long!)

O. says he wants his son to marry a girl who has an older brother so he can protect her. But he wants his daughters to marry men with older sisters who would then help their younger brothers set up their families. It is a bit convoluted but his reasoning has its own logic from a traditional point of view. Good luck! These days Chinese kids find their partners online and I doubt the gender of their siblings is an important part in their decisions.

30 September 2018

Massage and herbal bath

They opened a new massage parlor near home. It is the second branch of a company we tried last year. They offer a broad series of treatments, they sell beauty products and they complement it all with a herbal bath in a hot water tub.

It is located on 12th floor of an apartment building that includes lots of modern shops and, at the ground floor, one of the biggest supermarkets in town.

I am surprised to see this kind of service in a town at Guiyang's stage of development. Is it a sign of gentrification in the area?

The masseuses are all ladies, no masseurs. There are several rooms, each with one or two massage beds and, in an en-suite bathroom, a wooden tub. The tub is lined with a thin transparent film and filled with hot water. A bag of herbs is sunk into the water an hour or so before the treatment so as to diffuse its scent through the water and the whole bathroom.

Before the treatment they offer tea. The masseuses are mostly little skinny girls but they are very strong. They massage especially hard massage at the base of my skull, which is a bit painful but I can feel the muscles and joints enjoying it.

At the end I feel great my joints are smooth, my muscles relaxed and a big red area on my back, along my upper back, demonstrates the energy the little girl has put in her hands as they pressed and slid along my spine.

More tea is provided at the end of a blissful hour and a half of treatment.

As I leave my masseuse and two others escort me to the elevator, I thanked them and asked if they were hungry for lunch now and they nodded in unison, and wave goodbye.

The subscription for this parlor is 3988 Rmb for 20 treatments no expiration date. It is not cheap, actually very expensive for local salaries (about two months' wages of a waiter) but they are in business and expanding, and there are no tourists in the city, so the only explanation is that there is a growing middle class who is eager to use this kind of services!

27 September 2018

Grey day and wedding

Grey day at home working on the English edition of my Maldives book.

Mother in law and niece went to a wedding of some neighbors from Yan Jia village who are throwing a party in Chenzhou.

We had decided to go for lunch to a Korean restaurant in town, one of many new restaurants with foreign food which are open for business trying to attract the up and coming local middle class. Been there before, but would love to go again, look forward to some different kind of food. However, the clouds and especially the cold drizzle eventually act as a powerful deterrent and we decide to stay home.

Mother comes back with plastic bags full of of food, left overs from banquet: fruits sweets even a half kilo or so of delicious spicy prawns. It's the custom here: invitees to wedding receptions take home their share of leftovers. She said they took away the least compared to everyone else at the party. Some parents unabashedly tell their children to grab as much as possible as fast as possible!

23 September 2018

Market n. 2 in Guiyang

Morning to buy food for the lanterns day celebrations at Market n.2, just a kilometer or so from home.

On the way I cross paths with a lady who is carrying a balancing basket. She is collecting paper and plastic bottles to sell back to commercial recycling companies, apparently a common activity here.

Lots of sellers of ducks line up the streets today, it is the traditional moon festival meal. All the ducks, of course, are sold alive and kicking in their reed baskets.

One lady buys a duck but she does not trust the seller's scale, so she grabs her animal  and asks the next seller down the sidewalk to weigh it, not sure how it turned out but she bought the duck, 30 Rmb, about 4 euro.

The market is very busy, meat fish (always alive in water tanks) veggies of all kinds. Large quarters of cows are hanging from the roof of the covered market, and the butcher slices off any cut and size his clients require. On one side, a man with a grinder produces the typical spicy chili paste that is so common in Hunan cuisine.

As I snap away a policeman approaches me and Lifang and explains he doesn't want me to take pictures of his police car, which I haven't done and have no interest in doing anyway.

 A little girl drinks fresh juice out of a plastic cup then throws cup on ground, I pick it up and try to show her to hold on to it until she can put it in a bin but her mother takes it from her and shows her how to throw it... on the ground! I give up.

At home mother in law has bought a duck, which is swiftly slaughtered in the bathroom, fairly quickly and effortlessly. The blood flowing from the neck is collected to make bean curd and then used in a soup. It's very delicious!

22 September 2018

Train from Hangzhou to Chenzhou

Grey sky drizzling. We pack our stuff check out of the hotel and are off to station with an ever reliable didi car.

At the station we are welcomed by a very crowded waiting hall, lots of people going home for the mid-autumn day celebrations.

Lifang goes to get the tickets she has booked online while I wait in line to check-in. I've got all our suitcases and proceed with some difficulty. It's all the more difficult because the wheels of one suitcase are broken, so I have to drag it. But instead of helping me people try to jump the queue and get ahead of me. I manage to keep them behind me and make slow progress.

When she's back we go through to the waiting room a huge hall with thousands of people waiting for their train. From here batches of  travelers are admitted to the platform in the order of departure of their train.

Lifang manages to buy some bananas and processed duck meat for the trip, we've skipped lunch after all. I like the boneless duck bums especially!

The station is quite impressive. Electronic boards show the next 3 or 4 departing trains: red letters and numbers when you need to wait, yellow when you need to get ready and green when the gates (which look like those at the London subway) are open. We slip our tickets through and take the escalator down to the platform.

Then it's time to take position at the color-coded marks on the ground which indicate where each car will stop.

When the train arrives and stops with millimetric precision where it is supposed to stop I'm pleasantly surprised to see departing passengers patiently let arriving travelers off the train first!

We board and struggle to find a place to put our luggage, the aisle is so crowded.

We're off at 300+kmh through Zhejiang province toward Hunan. We barrel through fields of farms, many towns and cities where modern tall and thin residential buildings contrast with old traditional houses.

Too many screaming Chinese children on train, parents could do better to calm them down. Or not. Half the passengers are listening to their favorite TV program or playing a video game online, and not one of them is using earphones. the result is a somewhat less than enjoyable persistent monotonous and loud cacophony.

Once we get to Chenzhou we need a taxi (or Didi) to Guiyang. There is a taxi stand by the station, the fare is 100 Rmb. We try and get something cheaper but end up wasting time with an unofficial taxi before calling a Didi and getting home for dinner! Lesson learned: you may save a few Rmb by using unofficial and/or pooled transportation, but it's probably not worth the hassle!

21 September 2018

Temples in Hangzhou

After breakfast we take a trusted Didi car to the old city street, then walk up to the Dongyue temple. As soon as we arrived and walked inside the temple it started pouring cat and dogs. Not so convenient for walking around but it made for a picturesque scenery and it cooled down the air.

Three ladies are silently practicing tachi by entrance to the temple, completely oblivious to our presence.

The temple is from the Song dynasty and it contains Tao figures from before tang dynasty as well as big paintings celebrating inauguration of an emperor of the dynasty. We spend quite a bit of time looking at pictures for details. These celebrations lasted 67 days and cost 8 million yuan which at the time was an enormous amount of money.

The highlight of the day is our visit to the temple of the Soul's Retreat. It is a huge complex of several temples. As we walk in past the electronic ticket check we are greeted by a long series of Buddhas carved in the stone of the adjacent hills.

In the first temple a couple paid the monks to get their blessing. It was not their wedding, that had been done before, but a kind of enactment of a ceremony that to my untrained eye looked like a wedding. The groom is dressed very casually, just a cheap t-shirt really, while she is a little bit more elegant, but still no wedding attire of any kind. The monks, some thirty of them, gather at one corner of the temple and recite their mantras while the couple make an offer to a small altar lit by a few candles.

They then move to centerstage for more blessings and some drum playing by the monks.

We finally go outside with them and place incense sticks in a large bronze cauldron by the back door.

We spend the rest of the afternoon wandering around the huge complex. I can't see any foreign tourist, though there are many Chinese visitors, including quite a few pilgrims.

In one building we find a traditional writing desk with brushed and ink for people to try their calligraphy. More interestingly, there is a set of traditional robes and hats, for man and woman, for any one to try on for free. There is no one to be seen so my wife and I take our turns at dressing up and posing as a traditional Song dynasty family!

Dinner is back at Grandma, this time we share a table with a couple of middle-aged and rather large Chinese guys who keep ordering more food than they can possibly ingest. That seems to be a recurring trait in upscale restaurants in China. Maybe they do it to show off, I am not sure. Maybe the sudden abundance of wealth and food over the last few years still needs to be matched with a culture of avoiding waste.

19 September 2018

Hangzhou: Confucius temple and pork intestine

Large temple dedicated to Confucius near our hotel. I am almost the only visitor or maybe just three or four couples share the quiet air conditioned rooms and courtyards with me

There is a large collection of Stèles inscribed with figures of wise men and confucian texts. Many have been heavily damaged over the centuries but have now been meticulously restored and preserved. A serene place that I am sorry to leave.

I reflect how this is in stark contrast with the way that treasures were treated in recent past when doing the cultural revolution the red the guards destroyed with abandon anything that had to do with ancient Chinese culture.

Later took a walk around the west lake shore. I sat down and absorbed the landscape on a bench by the water. Lots of Chinese tourists and and all the German or French here and there. it is very hot and humid otherwise I would have taken a ride on one of the gondolas that ferry tourists around the lake.

I have lunch at the Grandma restaurant, which served all kinds of enticing food whose pictures were printed on a large menu together with the English translation . Today I went for green peas and braised intestine of pig. Peas are not that different from how we would prepare them in Italy, sweet tendency. Intestine is tender, a tad on the rubbery side but not chewy. It melts well in the mouth with minimal effort.

When I was finished the waiter presented the alipay barcode to me to pay electronically which however I could not do it. I am not allowed to open an Alipay account without a Chinese identification. I will have to look more into it as I have seen Alipay used outside China. So I have to pay with cash which made me look very much XIX century. Everybody else paid with their phones. I am not sure they even take credit cards I haven't seen anybody using credit cards in China these days except perhaps at big hotels. It seems China has leapt forward from cash to electronic payments via mobile telephone, largely skipping the credit card era together.

After lunch I walked around a bit more and then made it back to my hotel just in time before the heavens opened up and a heavy downpour put an end to my explorations for the day.

30 August 2018

An afternoon in Napan Yaur village in West Papua

Today, between dives, we visited the Napan Yaur village in Indonesian West Papua. As our outboard approached the beach for a wet landing, a couple of dozen children or so started to group on a wooden bench, under a tree. When we got close enough, our wet feet covered with sand, they started to sing some welcome songs for us. It was a highlight of the day, for them and for us.

Some young men were playing  volleyball a few meters away and they did not pay any attention to us.

There were many more children running around the village. Thanks to the translation help offered by Simone, our Brazilian dive guide who spoke some Indonesian, we learned from a local woman that the village's families, on average, have between eight and ten children ach.e

I roamed around a bit and ran into a school, where the blackboard indicated the pupils were learning English and French.

All around were tidy gardens full of pretty flowers. Most homes had chicken and dogs playing in the yard, though, when asked, they said they do not eat the dogs. No pigs, which I thought unusual as pork is a staple food here, but they told us they prefer to hunt wild boars in the surrounding mountains covered with thick rainforest.


26 July 2018

Book review: The Judgement of Paris (2005) by G. Teber, *****

Synopsis

The Judgement of Paris was a blind tasting that pitched American wines from California against French reds from Bordeaux and whites from Burgundy. The name is a play on the "Judgement of Paris" in Greek mythology.

The author was the only reporter present at the mythic Paris Tasting of 1976—a blind tasting where a panel of esteemed French judges chose upstart California wines over France’s best—for the first time introduces the eccentric American winemakers and records the tremendous aftershocks of this historic event that changed forever the world of wine.

The Paris Tasting of 1976 will forever be remembered as the landmark event that transformed the wine industry. At this legendary contest—a blind tasting—a panel of top French wine experts shocked the industry by choosing unknown California wines over France’s best.

George M. Taber, the only reporter present, recounts this seminal contest and its far-reaching effects, focusing on three gifted unknowns behind the winning wines: a college lecturer, a real estate lawyer, and a Yugoslavian immigrant. With unique access to the main players and a contagious passion for his subject, Taber renders this historic event and its tremendous aftershocks—repositioning the industry and sparking a golden age for viticulture across the globe. With an eclectic cast of characters and magnificent settings, Judgment of Paris is an illuminating tale and a story of the entrepreneurial spirit of the new world conquering the old.

Review

The definitive book on this historical event. French wine had been the uncontested world leader until that day, and maybe continued to be the leader, overall, but it was now hotly contested!

Spurrier put Bordeaux vs similar blend Californians, and Burgundy vs Californian Chardonnays. It was initially intended to be a tasting to introduce Californian wines to sceptical French experts, but once everyone was around the table Spurrier told them the real plan: a challenge.

The test was not scientifically exact: more American wines (6) than French wines (4) were included in the sample. And yet, take the whites: every single French judge scored an American chard first.

Another charge was that French wines were too young and would give their best later on in life. But several rematches years later saw the Americans prevail again.

A very detailed book about a pivotal point in wine history.






10 May 2018

Film review: Youth (2017) by Feng Xiaogang, *****

Synopsis

When Xiaoping joins the military, delicate dreams are dashed by the events of a China undergoing revolution. The devastating Sino-Vietnamese war crashes into 1970s China, changing the lives of the Army's young new recruits forever.

In this epic spanning several decades, Youth shows Comrades of the People's Liberation Army fight amongst themselves as much as on the battlefield – and cause as much damage as the war that tore their lives apart.


Review

Incredibly passionate and captivating historical film about life in China during the huge transformations that took place after Mao's death. A love story starts during the excesses of the cultural revolution with the "great helmsman" still in power, and the trauma of the war against Vietnam in 1979. After that, rapid reforms make many Chinese rich, and many officials corrupt, but the human story of the protagonists carries through the ages. One man's good deeds are taken for granted and not appreciated any more.

The film was supposed to be released just before the 2017 party congress but it was held up until after the congress itself for some reason. Maybe because it contains thinly veiled criticism of Mao and also raises many questions about the new system of the country.

A strongly recommended film about how China became what it is today.

See other film on China reviewed in this blog.






04 March 2018

Train back to Hong Kong and flights to Europe

Morning at home, final packing and tidying up before leaving Guiyang.As usual we have a couple of suitcases full of goodies, mostly food from family farm in Yanjia.

Brunch with family, bamboo shoots pork, water chestnut soup. And fish: a big black from the pond on our terrace! It is quite common for people to keep gold fish and live fish for eating together, in the same pond!

A neighbor gracefully drives us to Chenzhou station in his brand new Honda, which he points out costs twice as much in China as in Japan. Honda has factory here but it is supposed to be producing for export only, so he is not sure where his car, or parts of it, comes from.

He is a banker and has a good life. Happy with the way things are going in China but he says communism can never work. China is still officially pursuing communism but in practice it is successful because it is capitalist.

Chenzhou station is crowded beyond imagination, never seen it so full of people like an egg. And it must have been worse a couple of weeks ago for Chinese New Year's. They estimated that about 600 million people travel across the country to go home, the largest annual migration in the history of the world. No wonder the transportation system is busy.

Can't move around no chance to buy my favorite duck neck snacks from Shenhua. Bags through x-rays, but they don't check any of them.

people are allowed onto platforms in waves as each trains homes in on the station. There is one train every 8 to 10 minutes going either north toward Wuhan and Beijing or south to Guangzhou.

Fast train (over 300kmh) is slightly delayed but no problem we have a good buffer before our flight from Changsha. Once underway, the delay increases somewhat because one passenger sets off the smoke alarm. The driver slows down and two security guards walk up and down the train to catch the smoker. I am not sure what they will do to him or her but after about 10 minutes we resume our normal speed.

At Changsha station an avalanche of people moves to catch a bus or a taxi, or a maglev shuttle to the airport. We choose the bus as there is less to walk and we have large heavy suitcases full of Hunan food!

Just before boarding bus another x-ray machine for our bags, again no one cares to check .

The bus is an old and cranky machine from the bad old times, and a TV screen blasts off some kind of funny talk show at ear-piercing volume. It must be funny because Lifang laughs all the time.

At the airport we have to wait a while to check in but there is no place to sit down as people take up seats with bags, or lie down across three seats and think it is normal. We do not feel like starting an argument and just relax on our suitcases.

After check in we go through yet another x-ray machine no one pays any attention to and then passport control. Our flight to Hong Kong is in the same terminal area as international flights (and flights to Macau and Taiwan). Hong Kong is still a "special" administrative region, with its own borders, police, currency, laws etc. It is supposed to remain so at least until 2047 according to the treaty signed with the UK when the last remnant of the British empire was returned to its motherland.

After which we have another (you guess?) x-ray machine control! This time the do look very carefully and stop me. A guard asks if I am carrying a knife. I replied of course I was not. He asked me to open my trolley and take pretty much everything out. Of course there was no knife but the spine of a box looked like one on their screen. OK I can go.

The lounge of Changsha airport is nothing spectacular, and in fact they have reduced both its size and its offering since my last visit. Just some snacks and non-alcoholic drinks.

Uneventful flight to Hong Kong, where we spend a pleasant hour or so in the Qantas lounge while waiting to connect to our British Airways flight to Brussels. We walk to the gate quite early to board with the first batch of passengers and enjoy a drink or two before take-off.

Here, again, we run into the less than fully prepared staff of British Airways. We're flying to London and connect directly onward to Brussels. They won't let my Chinese wife board the plane because she does not have a Schengen visa. The rule says that she does not need one, because she is a resident of the UK and is with me, her husband, and an EU citizen. She would need one if she were traveling alone (though they usually let her through) but not in my company. It is a rather complicated rule, but it should not be beyond the grasp of people who check passport for a living.

I love a united Europe but they could really make an effort to simplify the rules back there in Brussels. Or just allow anyone who legally lives in Europe to move anywhere else in Europe, whatever the passport. but you would think the employees of a major international airline which fly planeloads of people from every corner of the world would familiarize themselves with it. No, they did not. For the third time in a little over a year we are held for some 30 minutes while the staff makes phone calls and scrambles to read manuals. I googled the relevant EU rule on the internet in less than 10 seconds and showed it to them, and finally we were allowed on board.

One more trip to Asia is over, though every time it feels less and less like a trip and more of a home coming. A long night on our BA flight and we'll be in Europe. BA is on a downhill slope when it comes to quality. Service on the plane, while friendly, is less meticulous and attentive than it used to be.



03 March 2018

Getting ready to leave Guiyang

Easy day at home, mostly packing and enjoying a late lunch with family. Today we ate fish, but only later I realized two of the black fish that were cooked with spring onion, garlic and chili were from the pond we have in our terrace. I like the idea: you can have pet fish in a tank, but at some point you eat them. The cycle of life continues.

For dinner we were invited by a friend and his family to a Miao theme restaurant, there are many around Hunan now but this is new in Guiyang. Guiyang seems to be developing fast, and what may have been considered too exotic to make money a few years ago now all of a sudden is popular with the rising middle class.

The Miao people are one of the best known minorities in China and live in scattered groups in many provinces, but mostly in about ten. Hunan has the second largest group, some 1.7 million people, or close to 3% of the population of the province. Only the adjacent Guizhou province has more. We had seen many in Western Hunan two years ago, this is the first time here in Guiyang. I am pleased to see that the wealth of minorities once again seems to be recognized as an asset in the country.

Food is served in the usual "lazy Susan" turning table and is quite varied, rich and, of course, spicy! People, eat, drink, laugh and even smoke cigarettes, all at once. Most of the men drink a lot. Chinese rice liquor. They drink one shot at the time, and to prove their point every time turn the empty glass to the other so everyone can see inside that it is empty. Sometimes they turn it upside down to show that not a drop is left. I drink two or three, then stop. I am not into this kind of competition, which I could never win anyway. Amazingly, no one gets drunk and at the end of the evening they will all walk home (or even drive home) without any issue. I thought the Russians and the Ukrainians were the toughest drinkers, or perhaps the Poles, but the Hunanese could take on any East European!

Four ladies in Miao costumes tour the restaurant and visit each and every one of the reserved tables and pour sweetish and mildly alcoholic drink into a carafe and from there to a cup positioned on lips of the "guest of honor", who must drink it all up! At our table, of course, that is me! I actually like the drink, though it is not so easy to swallow all that is required to look good, but in the end I manage to do so and avoid embarrassment!

Meanwhile the kids of the families attending play around the restaurant. The are full of energy and do not seem to care that it is getting late.

On our way back home, at the end of the meal, the children jumped on a street stage that has been prepare for a jazz festival that starts tomorrow. Too bad we'll miss the festival as we have to leave, but it's fun to see the kids dance tonight! And it's good to see jazz taking root in China, it's not been a favorite in the country for now, although increasingly available in the big cities. I guess, but I am not sure, that one advantage for jazz is that it is usually not as politically controversial as other genres and therefore not likely to be subject to any kind of censorship or restrictions. (Icelandic singer Björk got herself banned when she mentioned Tibet in one of her appearances.)

While we keep an eye on them, a friend bought us a cold drink, a kind of milk shake with beads made of paste of some beans. Quite new for me but refreshing and tasty, great to finish off the night!

28 February 2018

Cherry blossoms in Guiyang, Hunan

After a lazy morning and lunch at home, we decide to take a short trip in the late afternoon. We take a taxi (a "Didi", the local company that bought the Chinese Uber operation) and drive about 10 minutes to see the famous cherry trees in bloom. It is February, rather early for any flowers, and it is cold, but somehow the cherry trees blossom in Hunan!

There are actually two orchards, one is free and for the other one we would need to buy a ticket that costs 40 Yuan. The ticketed one is more crowded, maybe it is better?, but the taxi driver told us it is not necessarily more beautiful, and in fact he had seen that most of the flowers had already fallen to the ground. So we decide to go to the free one.

The driver can only go so far, not really all the way to the garden. We have a choice: walk or take a motorbike taxi. As it is already a bit late in the afternoon, we chose the latter option. Someone with a bike offers to take us the few hundred meters that separate us from the orchard for 5 Rmb.

Once we reach the area we are getting close to sunset but the warm pre-sunset light is very useful to take some good photos. Only a few dozen people are left, and the local hawkers of drinks and snacks are beginning to pack up.

As I snap away at the flowers and take some portraits of my wife, I notice a girl wearing an eye-catching white and blue costume who is posing for her girlfriend. She also has a veil she lets lose in the wind while the other girl takes photos with her phone.

It is now getting dark, not enough light for more flower pictures, but we take a walk toward the town's mine. The dig out lead and silver from here. The mine is still partly in operation but has a section that is open for tourists. It is too late now but we'll come another time.

On the way, an interesting poster with the thoughts of Xi Jinping, sharing his wisdom with passerbys.


Socialism core values

people have faith, nation has hope, country has power

wealth, democracy, civilization, harmony,   

freedom, equality, fairness, justice

patriotism, professionalism, honesty, kindness



Chinese president's thought



Longish walk back home, about 1 hour. On the way I looked at a wine shop, China is now the 6th largest producer of wine and the middle class wants ever more good wines. This one though sells mostly distilled products. Most wines are red, which the Chinese consume in much larger quantities than whites. Some bottles are Chinese and a few French. A couple of Italian bottles from Tuscany and Venetia. Most wines are priced between 80 and 250 Rmb.

Dinner at home. As we're about to finish dinner the neighbors come in for a visit. Their little one and my niece Cindy play together quite often, even once kissed on the lips before they reached 2 years of age!


24 February 2018

Leiyang to Guiyang by bus

After some more trying to get two train tickets (no chance) and some trepidation at the thought of spending the rest of our Chinese New Year holiday here, we manage to get two tickets on a bus home, to Guiyang, where family is waiting for us.

The bus too is fully booked, but we get two seats in the back.

Three men board and take seats without tickets, when collector asks for tickets they say they could not buy them because they were sold out. They  argue, they want to go home. Then three more passengers with tickets board but can't find any seats because they've been taken by the three men. A long argument ensues then finally the three men leave.

Very noisy trip, people suck their drinks loudly, a car-sick girl vomits no one cleans up.

Meanwhile, it's been raining all day long.

We pass through some old villages. Old houses with pagoda roofs quite charming though need restoration.

New housing on the other hand mostly has with flat roof, just boxes of brick and mortar, no character but popular because can dry fruit on top . good for farmers who move to town but still grow crops in village plots.

Once at the Guiyang coach station we find a Didi (Chinese Uber) taxi driver who is rude and unhelpful. He does not move from his seat and keeps smoking while we load and unload heavy suitcases. But anyway we are home!

It is 4pm or so by the time we get to the apartment, and it is very cold. Hunan houses don't have a central heating system but many (including ours) have electric systems but people don't turn them on. In the evening it's 11 degrees inside, essentially the same temperature as outside.

22 February 2018

Wedding in Leiyang

We get picked up early for a pre-wedding ceremony in the groom's village, about half an hour away. Here we meet his relatives and assist to a small ceremony in the paternal house.

They tell us how the husband went to the house of bride to take her with him and left a chicken as a symbolic form of gratitude to her family for having brought her up!

On a simple wooden table in the middle of the main room of the paternal house, we are offered tea, peanuts and cigarettes.

All around are many old houses with clay tiles, wooden beams and wood floors.Some are being demolished for new ones with flat roofing and cement bricks. More functional if less charming.

Back in town we see a rather large Christian church next to a Buddhist temple. We get our shoes cleaned by a happy lady (one of many) who is working on the sidewalk with a little stool, a chair for her clients, brushes and polish. She is happy, smiling and works fast and very well!

We are told that this town of Leiyang also hosts the biggest cement factory in Hunan and a huge coal power plant they are very proud of! Also a shoe factory, not to mention a gold mind: 20 percent of china's gold is extracted in Hunan.

At the reception, people come and give envelopes at a table by the entrance where each envelope is opened and the money counted, then most of them just eat and go away, unabashedly taking leftovers with them!

We later take a walk around the Western Lake park with a large pond and bridges by the western lake middle road. Lots of children playing around, many elderly men play card and mahjong.

There is a beggar with broken feet, he says to my wife he was a construction worker but fell from the 3rd floor of a building and broke both his feet. He says he gets 200 rmb a month from government, just enough to pay rent for a room. Then has to beg for a living, moves around on a small sled with 4 little wheels and pushes himself forward with two broken metal pipes.

My impression is that it is not easy to be a beggar in China, it is not a compassionate culture if you can generalize about 1.5bn people. His pot is almost empty. I am thinking of London where beggars get much better treatment from passersby but a better comparison is India where (again difficult to generalize) people give more easily in the streets. Quite often I've seen people who look poor give to those who are poorer. In China apparently a lot of beggars are fake, they pretend to be sick or handicapped.

In the end we manage to buy tickets at coach station to go to Guiyang tomorrow, no chance for train, but better than walking!

Changsha to Leiyang

Amazing buffet at the Changsha Intercontinental hotel, eastern and western, hot and cold, sweet and savory, chopsticks and forks and knives and spoon, it is a real celebration.

Some of the highlights: I was first attracted by the local cold noodles, roughly grated with a special tool from a big boulder of dow. You then add spices and bits and pieces of veggies and meats. Also interesting the hot soup with veggies, pork, mushrooms, taylor-made for each of us by a dedicated chef.

After breakfast the real challenge of the day awaits us: find tickets to Leiyang for the wedding ceremony of Carrie, one of our best Chinese friends, but no seats were available to purchase online as usual. It is still the Chinese new year rush, with over half a billion people moving around the country to spend the holidays at home. We went to the station and tried our luck at the ticket office, but no way.

We were then approached by some scalpers who wanted 300 Rmb, not for tickets but as a fee to smuggle us on a train then we could then, supposedly, buy standing tickets. However I have never seen anyone standing on the fast train we need, and the slow train would take way too long, maybe up to 4 hours as opposed to 1. The whole thing is fishy, we give up.

We're stuck! My wife then remembers that there is an alternative: get bus tickets instead. We manage to catch the last bus to Chenzhou at 5:30pm, but must pay for the whole ride to Chenzhou even if we plan to get off at Leiyang. Actually at a highway station which is the stopover for Leiyang-bound passengers. But that's the way it is and we're lucky to be able to get (close) to our destination! Carrie's husband and his brother (who owns a car) will come and pick us up. Very kind for someone who's getting married tomorrow!

Meanwhile great buffet (40 Rmb pp) with unlimited food and beer at a restaurant by the gas station. Tons of meat (great), fish (so so) and veggies (again great). Beer is a local brand, kind of light, but tasty. No fresh fruit however. I loved the chicken paws and the pork belly. Also black fungus with quail eggs was juicy and inviting.

Gas station buffet, Hunan